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The best footballer I have ever seen

Over the years I have told many of the stories and memories that appear on this Blog over and over again. That’s one reason for posting them. If I have told the same story 20 times I might as well make a definitive record of it here, though that might not stop me from telling the same story many times more in the years to come.

On Sunday we went to Cambridge for the day and saw Alexander Armstrong perform songs from Winnie the Pooh at my old college chapel. Later that evening I was explaining to my 10-year-old daughter the derivation of the word “chunder”, meaning “to vomit”. I first heard it when I went up to university, and I told her the story that appears in this post, about someone who vomited on my carpet during my first year. I could have pointed her to the link but we prefer to tell our stories round the dinner table, even if they involve someone getting sick in my college room over 30 years ago.

Using the same principle I’ll make a record here of a story I told my 12 year old son’s godfather and his best mate earlier this month, while we were watching the Ireland v Austria World Cup Qualifier at a local pub. Talk turned, as it often does, to the great footballers we have been privileged to see here in London. For me there is one player who stands head and shoulders (figuratively) above everyone else I have seen over the last 40-odd years: Diego Maradona.

It was a friendly game before the 1986 World Cup, Tottenham Hotspur v Inter Milan. Maradona was playing for Spurs, with his friend and Argentina colleague Osvaldo Ardiles. He wore the Number 10 shirt, usually reserved for Glenn Hoddle. (I don’t recall what shirt number the future England manager wore instead.) Chris Waddle was also playing for Spurs. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge was due to captain Inter but didn’t play. Liam Brady (who had left Arsenal for Inter in the late 1970s) was their stand-out player. Watching Maradona live for a whole game, not just on TV, was a revelation. With every pass, every touch, every move he seemed to take the best possible option. Even when he was standing still he looked easily the best player on the pitch. It was, by some distance, the greatest footballing display I have ever seen at a stadium, and this was an end-of-season friendly between two clubs he had never played for before. It was, admittedly, just a few weeks before the 1986 World Cup Finals in Mexico, and many of the players on display were due to appear there, so it wasn’t the same as many end-of-season friendlies. I can’t even remember the final score, either 2-1 to Tottenham or a 1-1 draw. If Rumenigge had played we would have seen the German national captain playing against his Argentine counterpart, as happened in the World Cup Final later that summer. (Argentina won 3-2, as you may know.)

When telling people about the game I usually emphasize how good Maradona was by positioning my right hand in front of me, just above my head. “Maradona was up here,” I tell them. Then I move my hand downwards, just in front of my chin. “And Liam Brady was here.” Then I move my hand downwards, just in front of my belly. “And everybody else, even Glenn Hoddle, was down here.”

 

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